Focus & Following Directions

Your Child Is Sending You Signals. Are You Ignoring Them?

Is your child acting up, acting out, or throwing tantrums? Find the reason behind the behavior, and you’ll be on your way to changing it.

A young girl covering her face after acting out
Blue background hands over face

Over my career, many referrals to my private practice, and most of my school consultations, focused on kids with ADHD and/or LD who exhibited behavior that was considered inappropriate, disruptive, rude, or oppositional. I wish I had learned earlier that the behavior of kids with attention or learning challenges was not a symptom of ADHD, but was instead a consequence of these conditions.

Kids who have trouble focusing on important information often make mistakes because of their LD or ADHD. No one — especially no child — wants to be seen as a loser, a maker of mistakes. I wish I had realized that some children, trying to protect their fragile self-esteem, behave in ways that take attention away from their flaws. Embedded in the negative behavior of kids with ADHD and LD, there is always a signal — a clue to unlocking the mystery of why these kids do what they do. Experience has taught me to read those signals, and I want to share what I’ve learned with you.

Parents and teachers can figure out why children behave the way they do by looking for clues and interpreting them correctly. After reading this article, I hope you will be able to unlock the secret to understanding why your child does what he does. Most important, I hope you learn how to reduce negative behaviors and raise happier kids.

Why Kids Act Negatively

When children and adults act in negative ways, it’s usually because their basic needs aren’t being met. Forget the idea that kids do bad things because they are demons or that they act appropriately because they are angels. Children act in ways that they think will get their basic needs met. If kids don’t get what they need by doing things in the expected or acceptable way, they try other ways.

Negative behaviors are disturbing, disruptive, or even dangerous, so parents and teachers try to come up with strategies that change or eliminate those behaviors. For example, a teacher who mistakenly believes that a child is seeking attention chooses to ignore certain attention-getting behaviors. A child who starts using a toy as a weapon gets a warning first (which actually reinforces the behavior), and then the toy is taken away. But unless the underlying need is correctly interpreted, teachers and parents miss opportunities to offer activities that meet that need in a positive, acceptable way. When they do, the negative behaviors tend to disappear.

[Free Download: 10 Rules for Parents of Defiant Kids]

Take Thoughtful Actions

Many adults think that reacting to negative behavior will make the problem go away. Too often, the opposite happens. When adults react reflexively or impulsively to try to stop or contain the behavior, it often gets worse! Unless parents and teachers look beyond the surface behavior, read a child’s need, and meet it through thoughtful, appropriate options, the behavior will continue.

Kids say, “Look at me,” for a variety of reasons: “Look at me, I’m waving my hand because I want you to call on me, so I can show you that I’m smart.” “Pay attention to my jokes and shenanigans because I believe I am funny, and I want you to believe that, too.” “Hey, look at me! In my family, everybody always pays attention to me.” Or “Look at me! I’m doing this stupid stuff because I don’t want you or my classmates or my family to see how dumb I am.”

If parents and teachers understand the need a child is trying to satisfy, they can do things make the behaviors subside. Here are some needs that children have in school and at home, and several suggestions for how teachers and parents can meet them:

If a child seeks attention:

> The teacher can give the boy or girl the opportunity to “showcase” a skill (singing or rapping, playing an instrument, cooking, drawing cartoons) at a time and in a place that is acceptable and appropriate. A parent can videotape a son or daughter doing something special and share that with friends and relatives via Skype or Facebook.

[Symptom Test: Could Your Child Have Executive Function Disorder?]

If a child seeks competence:

> The teacher can put the child in charge of something that capitalizes on the child’s strengths. For example, have the child create a class “duty roster,” or allow him to choose who does “show and tell” the next morning, or who gets to be the “line leader.” A parent can have a child choose a book to read to a younger sibling, or decide which food to prepare and eat for some dinners or lunches, or allow him to eat a “reverse meal” in which dessert is served before dinner. If you are creative, you can put kids in control of many things that are acceptable, appropriate, and fun. Other options include: creating situations in which a boy or a girl can teach a younger or less-talented child how to do something that the needy child knows how to do well.

If a child wants to be valued:

> Have him or her do things that have value to classmates or siblings, like passing out tokens for good behavior, or coming up with a list of “Good Deeds” that other kids have done during the day, and passing out “Good Deed” medals or ribbons.

If a child wants to be liked:

> Teachers and parents can ask classmates or other kids to identify something the child does or can do “that you really like.” Create a list of these likeable behaviors and keep a record of the times the target child does these things.

If a child wants to be understood:

> Teachers and parents can teach a child different code systems (like the Morse Code) to send other kids “secret messages.” Kids who like having other kids understand them enjoy playing charades. This game meets a lot of needs at once: “Hey! Pay attention to me. Get me. Like me! Include me! Laugh with me, not at me!”

If a child wants to avoid stress:

> Teachers and parents can teach a child how to 1) recognize the physical symptoms of stress; 2) use stress reduction techniques, such as meditation or yoga; 3) use the language of success, such as, “This might be really hard, but I believe that I can do it!”

You don’t need an Enigma machine to figure kids out. If you ask yourself, “What motivates this child to behave this way?” you’re halfway there to breaking their code. If you can read the need, you can meet the need. And you’ll be pleased with the results.

[Free Handout: Effective Solutions to Common Classroom Problems]

(Author’s note: I would like to pay my respects to the late Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, whose work in understanding the goals of children’s misbehavior has guided me and influenced my work with kids and families for over 40 years.)